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Finding a Therapist: The Best Professionals Work With You

In therapy, you have to do the heavy lifting, emotionally and psychologically.

Key points

  • Different times of life, varying circumstances, and changing dynamics may require you to enter, or to leave, therapy. Take the process seriously.
  • Have a sense of your own goals, hopes, and needs when researching professionals and their approaches. Be aware that strategies differ.
  • Your friends are not your therapist and your therapist is not your friend. Respect the boundaries of the relationship.
  • First impressions matter; second and third impressions matter more. It takes time to build trust and intimacy. Therapy is not a quick fix.

When I got divorced after five years of marriage, it took me three years before I got married again.

When my therapist of 15 years retired, however, it took me eight years even to start looking for a new one.

Let's just say that finding the right therapist can be a tough challenge. I so entirely admired and respected my former "Good Shrink" (as I called her, despite the fact that she was not a psychiatrist but a psychologist) that it seemed impossible to find a replacement.

She'd seen me through the first years of my real marriage, the one that's lasted 30 years and counting, dealing with issues of step-parenting and work/life balance. She helped me deal with my father's illness and death, with my own grief and resentments, with sibling issues and professional jealousies, with matters concerning sex, menopause, aging, and creativity. We developed, as one does in long-term therapy, a kind of shorthand.

My therapist could read my mood when I walked into her office; it was as if she were a meteorologist and I was my own weather system. She knew and understood my inner landscape. She could trace where the moods originated and could predict, with uncanny accuracy, the places they might be headed.

I knew she could not be replaced and accepted her retirement with a sense of loss for myself but a sense of celebration for her. We parted on excellent terms.

For several years, drawing on the voice I internalized from her was effective enough to get me through the inclement weather of my head and my heart. I learned, in part because of my work with her, how to predict when turbulence was ahead and I learned skills about how to deal with it. (Only part of this is metaphoric: One of the problems I needed immediate help with when I started therapy with her, all those many years ago, was my increasing fear of flying.)

But the last couple of years have been complicated in new ways: My husband went into a complex cardiac arrest event, and although he not only survived but is healthier now than before the trauma, it drew on combined emotional capital to get through it. He retired. I turned 65. I am not retiring—at least not if I can help it—but I am navigating this phase of life. I've become anxious and stressed in new ways, occasionally depressed, coping with bouts of insomnia, and recalling incidents from childhood and adolescence that have shaped my adult life in ways I am reluctant to admit.

It was time to get back into therapy. That meant that it was time to find a new therapist. I was daunted and exhausted before I began.

Of course that was precisely when I needed therapy. I was also looking during COVID, which meant that i would need to learn how to manage online therapy sessions.

I asked for recommendations, which is where I suggest everyone begin.

But I knew several of these suggestions were not going to work.

One person gave me the name of a psychologist I'd met previously, before I found the previous Good Shrink. That wouldn't work because I'd been ridiculing this guy for 25 years. I'll sum up by saying he was both a bully and a narcissist, and even with experience, I don't believe those essential character traits would have changed.

Another suggestion directed me towards a woman who was an advocate of classical psychotherapy, which in her practice translated into being almost nonresponsive to her patients. That wouldn't work well for me, although I know it does for others.

Yet another friend who trusted and liked her therapist explained in very clear terms that I would need to become comfortable with forms, as she put it, of "hypnotic regression sessions." It worried me to the point where I felt my own misgivings would interfere with whatever parts of this might work.

Finally, I found the right New Good Shrink: For the past several months we've worked together online. I'm relieved to be getting help, ironically comforted by the challenge of being back in serious therapy and grateful for the privilege of insured healthcare. I've found it far easier and effective than I imagined it would be to meet him via Zoom rather than in the office.

I've also discovered that I can rely on and accept—rather than distrust and fight—generosity and empathy. I suspect part of that is my own age and willingness to ask hard questions (and hear unnerving responses) and that the other part is due to my therapist's expertise, empathy, and insight.

Any intimate relationship, especially one which necessarily remains within the boundaries of a professional frame, depends on the expectations, backgrounds, approaches, and—yes—the personalities those involved bring to it. As is the case in every other relationship with authentic meaning, it's worth it.

Good luck with your search. Don't settle for what you don't want; don't make too hasty a decision; and have clear ideas about what you hope to accomplish, even as you realize those goals might change.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.